A Glance At The Waco Controversy

Associated Press, September 10, 1999
By Michelle Mittelstadt

WASHINGTON (AP) - The FBI's grudging acknowledgment that it was less than candid about its role in the final hours of the 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Texas, has raised new questions and prompted yet another investigation into the tragic events of April 19, 1993.

Attorney General Janet Reno on Thursday named former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., to lead an independent investigation into what happened that day. Danforth's probe follows a trio of congressional hearings and two federal inquiries into the deaths of David Koresh and some 80 of his followers.

Here, in question-and-answer form, is a look at some of the basic issues:

Q: Why is Waco back on the national agenda?

A: Because of recent news reports showing that the FBI did, in fact, use potentially incendiary tear gas on that final day, despite six years of FBI and Justice Department claims to the contrary. In recent weeks, FBI and Justice officials have been in the awkward position of having to disavow years of erroneous statements to Congress and the public about the FBI Hostage Rescue Team's use of tear gas in the hours before the Davidians' compound erupted in flames.

Q: What are government officials saying now, compared to what they said then?

A: On Aug. 25, the FBI acknowledged that a "very limited number" of military pyrotechnic CS gas canisters were fired at a concrete shelter adjacent to the Davidians' wooden compound. That stands in sharp contrast to earlier public statements. Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee less than two weeks after the standoff's end, Reno said that based on the briefings she'd been given, "It was my understanding that the tear gas produced no risk of fire." And in its voluminous October 1993 report documenting the final assault, the Justice Department made no mention of any pyrotechnic devices. In fact, the Justice report stated: "The gas delivery systems the FBI used were completely non-incendiary." Some former senior FBI officials who played key roles during the standoff, including former deputy assistant FBI director Danny Coulson and chief Waco spokesman Bob Ricks, say they were unaware until recently that potentially combustible devices were used.

Q: Cover-up or bureaucratic slip-up?

A: That's THE question for several congressional committees that are investigating the FBI's belated about-face, and for Danforth. "My job is to answer the dark question or the dark questions: Was there a cover-up? That's a dark question. Did the government kill people? ... How did the fire start?" Danforth said. The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Reform Committee also are investigating, in preparation for fall hearings.

Q: What roles did Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh play?

A: The standoff was already under way when Reno took office, and she had been on the job less than five weeks when she approved the FBI's proposal to use tear gas to flush out the Davidians and break the siege. Reno, who has said she made clear to the FBI her concern that nothing be used that could ignite a fire, is coming under increasing attack on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on Wednesday became the highest-ranking congressional leader to call for her resignation over the escalating controversy. Freeh, who didn't take the helm of the FBI until four months after the standoff ended, has escaped much of the criticism.

Q: Why did this come to light now?

A: Because of inquiries by documentary filmmakers, reporters and lawyers for surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of the dead who are going to court next month in their longstanding lawsuit that the government was responsible for the deaths. Use of the potentially incendiary tear gas was first reported by The Dallas Morning News on Aug. 24, triggering the latest controversy over Waco.

Q: How did the standoff begin?

A: After the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attempted on Feb. 28 to execute warrants for suspected firearms violations, triggering a deadly gunbattle with heavily armed Davidians who had been tipped off about the raid. Four ATF agents and at least several Davidians died in the gunfire, and more than 16 other ATF agents were wounded. The FBI quickly took control of the operation after the botched raid.

Q: How many people died on the siege's final day?

A: Davidian leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died during the final day's inferno, some from gunshot wounds, others from the fire. Fire had so damaged the bodies that coroners never were able to establish an exact count of the dead.

Q: Who caused the fire?

A: Reno and FBI officials say there is no evidence, even in light of the FBI's tear-gas admission, that the fire was caused by the pyrotechnic canisters. Aerial infrared tapes newly turned over by the FBI capture a radio transmission at 8:08 a.m. in which an unnamed agent says the military rounds bounced off the concrete structure, which was located 40 yards from the main wooden compound. Independent arson investigators determined that the fire, which began at 12:07 p.m., was started inside the compound in three different locations simultaneously. "That fire was set by David Koresh and the people in that building," Reno said. The surviving Davidians disagree. In their lawsuit, they contend that the blaze was ignited by the tear gas canisters.

Q: What types of tear gas were used?

A: Two types of non-incendiary tear gas and the newly revealed military pyrotechnic rounds. The non-incendiary liquid tear gas was inserted in one of two ways: Either by Combat Engineering Vehicles that used their booms to punch holes into the compound's walls to insert the gas; or by Bradley Fighting Vehicles that fired non-combustible "Ferret" rounds that shattered on impact. The military M651 canisters, which burn for about 30 seconds to heat and release the solidified tear gas inside, were fired from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

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